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Categorized | Articles, Kelly Funk

Your Image — Crop Sensor vs Full-Frame: Should I Switch? (full story)

©Kelly Funk
Moon and mountain, northeast of Jasper, Jasper National Park, AB
Gear/Settings: Nikon D200, 200-400 f/4 lens shot at 400mm, ƒ5@1/100 sec., ISO 100

Story and photography by Kelly Funk

If you’re like most, you started out in the bold world of DSLR photography with a crop sensor camera. You may have made the switch to full-frame, or perhaps not, each for a variety of reasons. I dare to say most pros use a full-frame system (depending on their chosen content/field), but some use both. Sound befuddling already? And if you’re shooting with a crop sensor system, is it really a move up, or just a move? There’s a lot of information out there both for and against each system, so let’s start by clarifying what each is and then move on to what they offer.

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Crop sensors, the first DSLRs offered by major manufacturers, use a smaller sensor size compared to full-frames, which replicate a true 35mm camera. These smaller sensors translate into magnified final images from what focal range we shoot at; some as little as 1.3x, and as high as 2x with a more compact camera. Most fall in the range of 1.5x. This means that a 50mm lens, in real-world results, is acting like a 75mm. There are obvious drawbacks and benefits to this, your shooting style and content being first and foremost.

©Kelly Funk
Hikers — Robson Glacier, Mt. Robson Provincial Park, BC
Gear/Settings: Nikon D4, 16-35 f/4 lens shot at 35mm, ƒ9@1/320 sec., ISO 100

The other important point to note is that these smaller sensors, while often containing a similar megapixel count to a full-frame, have smaller photosites (the tiny sensors that detect the light for each pixel). This directly affects how the sensor reacts to low light, and will contribute to digital noise when ISO values get high. Very few crop sensor cameras, apart from a “pro level,” can even come close to the performance of a full-frame sensor in low light in terms of both noise and dynamic range (one of the reasons for the higher cost). It’s important to note here that this is only true with both full-frame and crop sensor cameras that are relatively close in production age. Sensor technology of cameras produced over the last few years far surpasses that of 8 or 10 years ago. Given a similar age, does this mean that a crop sensor camera will always yield inferior results? Absolutely not! In good light, given the ISO is relatively low and the megapixels are the same, you will see no real-life difference in image quality. The drawbacks are only apparent on a crop sensor when ISO levels get quite high, such as 1200 to 1600. The pro-level crop sensor cameras are quite a bit closer when it comes to low light comparisons, although cost then becomes a factor. The real benefit to a crop sensor camera is the reach. Instead of spending a small fortune on a long lens, like a 500mm or 600mm, you can use a 300mm and get similar results. The down side to this is that wide-angle lenses, like a traditional 16mm, will need to be purchased specific to crop sensors and do not transfer to full-frame. So if you think you might want to switch systems down the road, those specialty lenses will have to be sold. The other benefit is cost. Generally, crop sensor systems are much cheaper than full-frames for reasons I’ll touch on shortly. It’s not uncommon to start with a crop system and then switch to full-frame after your style and content has been better established.

Full-frame systems have both advantages and disadvantages just like the crop systems. As I’ve touched on, full-frame replicates the traditional 35mm result, where any lens performs to its actual focal range. Unless you need additional focal distance, this can be beneficial because you can create less depth-of-field if desired, leading to a more isolated subject, which is great for portraits or sports. One of the main advantages is the low light performance. With higher-end bodies, it’s not uncommon to achieve stellar results at 10,000 ISO — a number that’s just not possible with a crop sensor body. The other benefit is that because many full-frame systems are catering to the pro market, their build, auto focus features, controls and functionality are on a higher level, once again, with the exception of the pro-level crop cameras. There is a literal price to pay though, as I’m sure all of you are aware.

©Kelly Funk
Outdoor portrait taken near Kamloops, BC
Gear/Settings: Nikon D4, 85mm f/1.8 lens, ƒ2.2@1/500 sec., ISO 100

If you’re informed about what each sensor offers, and have weighed the pros and cons, there’s no right or wrong answer. Desired content and subject matter should be strongly considered before deciding on or switching systems. If you love wildlife and sports, crop sensors are probably a good choice. They provide added reach at a fraction of the cost and, in good light, yield excellent quality, especially newer editions. If you shoot a lot of landscape and wide-angle material you can still make a crop sensor work very well; just be cognizant that wide-angle lenses will need to be crop lenses, and do not translate to full-frame systems later. The cost of crop bodies is usually significantly less, as well as the size and weight, especially the entry-level editions. Full-frames offer better low light performance for any type of content, usually better features and a shallower depth-of-field when desired, but the cost, size and weight are notably higher. One real benefit though is that if you have a full array of full-frame lenses, they will never have to be purchased a second time. Committing to or switching systems isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. Most of us have a budget to consider, and as my father always told me, “If you’re going to buy something, buy it once.”

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